Authors: Adrianne Byrd
harlie hated doctors. No doubt. His resentment went back to the day he was born, when some heartless doctor smacked him on the butt. Since then, he despised anyone wearing a white coat. Since that first day, medical professionals had put him through an endless ordeal of sharp needles, horrible-tasting prescription medicines, and as he got older, even subjected him to invasive finger-probing in unmentionable areas.
Now with an important business trip to South Africa coming up, Charlie had to deal with a lot of blood work, updating vaccinations and loading up on antibiotics. But it all needed to be done if he was going to save his company.
“Ah, Mr. Masters. You kept your appointment.”
Charlie gave an odd-angled smile as he strolled into Dr. Weiner's office leaning on a cane to protect his sprained ankle. His brain quickly scrolled through his mental Rolodex for the name of the cinnamon-brown beauty at the check-in desk, but luckily he was rescued by her name tag. “Tammy, how are you?”
The roll of her eyes told him she knew he didn't remember her. “So what's the excuse this time? You lost my number? You had another death in the familyâthe dog, perhaps?”
“I don't own a dog,” he said, unruffled by her irritation. He leaned over the counter and smiled into her eyes. “Besides I've been under the weather and have been laid up for a little while.”
A spark returned to her disbelieving gaze. “Then maybe I could come over to your place and play nurse?”
“Now that sounds like a plan.”
Charlie glanced over his shoulder and then smiled at the nurse glaring at him. “Ah, Lexi.” Embarrassment heated his face. “I didn't see you standing there.”
Lexi shook her head. “You'll never change, will you, Charlie?”
He gave her his best puppy dog expression while his smile turned sly. “Can I help flirting when this office is filled with such beautiful women?”
“Sign in right here,” Tammy instructed, her lyrical voice now flat.
Determined not to let the women see him sweat, Charlie scribbled his name and handed over his insurance card before Lexi led him to a room to wait for Dr. Weiner. A playboy at heart, Charlie couldn't stop thinking about Tammy's idea of playing nurseâespecially if she wore a tight white dress, white fishnet thigh-highs and high-heeled shoes.
Thinking about the fantasy nurse uniform gave Charlie an instant hard-on just as he was sitting down on the doctor's table, giving Lexi a good eyeful.
“Um.” She cleared her throat. “The doctor will be with you in a minute.”
Charlie nodded and pretended not to notice her distraction as she walked backward. When she bumped into the wall, he gave her a smile.
“Oops,” he said.
Lexi jumped and glared at him again before racing out of the room.
He chuckled. Women never failed to amuse him.
Twenty minutes later, when Charlie had just decided to take a quick nap, Dr. Weiner ambled into the room with his thick, black-rimmed glasses sitting on the edge of his nose.
“Ah, Dr. Weiner. Good to see you again,” Charlie greeted.
The hunch-shouldered doctor came in with a thin smile and lifted his rheumy eyes toward him. “Afternoon, Charlie.”
It was the tone that knotted Charlie's stomach muscles or maybe it was the fact that the chilly room had suddenly grown stuffy. “What is it, Doc?”
Weiner drew in a deep breath and closed the chart in his hand as he pulled up a stool and sat down.
Charlie could literally hear the blood rushing through his veins. He didn't like the look of this. He tried to brace himself the best he could, but he couldn't stop being impatient for the news. “Whatever it is, just tell me. I can handle it,” he lied.
The doctor nodded gravely. “Your lab results came inâ¦”
“Andâ¦It doesn't look too good.” He leveled his serious gaze on Charlie. “You're dying.”
Charlie stiffened. “Come again?”
“I know this is coming as a surprise, but the lab resultsâ”
“B-but I feel fine.” The doctor's words hit him like an iron fist. It simply wasn't true. It wasn't possible.
Dr. Weiner frowned. “Didn't you tell me two weeks ago that you've been exhausted lately?”
“B-but that's because of work. I've been putting in a lot of hours. Iâ” Charlie swallowed. “What's wrong with me?”
“It looks like you have aplastic anemia.”
“A plastic what?”
“Aplastic anemia. It means you have a low count of all three blood cells. I still need to confirm with a bone marrow testâbut with these numbers, I'm pretty sure.”
The room roared with silence before the doctor at long last said, “I'm sorry.”
Finally finding his courage, Charlie asked, “Okay, how do we treat it?”
The doctor hesitated. “Well, there're a few things we can tryâall extremely risky butâ¦.”
“How long?” Charlie asked.
“IâI can't just give a date.”
“How long?” Charlie insisted.
Dr. Weiner glanced back down at the chart. “Given these numbers, I'd say five to six months, tops.”
don't feel right leaving you here like this,” Anna complained, setting her suitcase down by the door. “What if something happens while I'm gone?”
“I'm a big girl.” Gisella laughed. “I think I can take care of myself.”
Anna drew a deep breath. “Nicole and Jade's phone numbers are on the refrigerator. Call them if you need help with anything. I'm leaving to go to my company's headquarters in New York, but I'll call you every day.”
” Gisella sassed, bumping her hip against her sister's before marching out of Anna's bedroom. “Sasha and I will be fine.”
Her sister followed her to the kitchen and watched her slip on her Kiss the Chef apron and then pull out a variety of bowls and ingredients from every cabinet. “You really do love doing this stuff, don't you?” she said, folding her arms and leaning against the kitchen's door frame. “You'd live in a kitchen if you could.”
“Don't think I haven't thought about it,” Gisella joked, measuring out flour and vanilla extract. “I'm still trying to crack
's famous recipe for her
“Why don't you just ask her for it?”
a novel idea.” Gisella smacked her palm against her head. “Why didn't I think of it?”
“She won't give it up, eh?”
“She claims the recipe is top-secret because its effects can be dangerous for those who don't respect its power.”
“Dangerous?” Anna repeated skeptically. “We're talking about chocolate, right?”
“Ah, but not just any kind of chocolate.” Gisella waved a finger at her sister. “There is what you might call a culinary urban legend about
. It is said that just one bite of the decadent treat ignites passion.”
“What? Like an aphrodisiac? C'mon, people have been saying that about chocolate for years. It's not true.”
“But ah! This recipe is the real deal. Trust me. I know.”
Anna lifted a single brow. “You've had it before?”
Casting her eyes down, Gisella bit her lower lip and tried her best not to look like a blushing fool.
“Gisella! Don't tell me there's a wild side to you.”
“There's a lot you don't know about me,” she sassed with a shrug of indifference. “Anyway, I'm no closer figuring out the recipe now than when I first started a couple of years ago, mainly because I have to rely on memory. But I
figure it out,” she vowed.
“So whose bones did you jump when you ate this magical stuff?”
Gisella's smile faded when her mind tumbled back. “Robert's.”
“Oh.” Anna sobered. “There I go shoving my foot into my big mouth.”
“Don't,” Gisella said, waving off the apology. “The past is the past. All I can do is learn from it and move forward and create new memories.”
Her sister's eyes narrowed on her. “Do you already have someone else in mind?”
“What? No!” Gisella lied, her face heating up with embarrassment. “I'm just saying that you never know what's in the future. That's all.”
“Humph!” As usual, Anna rolled her eyes at Gisella's romantic fancy. “I already know what my future holdsâa lot of romance novels and gallons of ice cream.”
Gisella laughed guiltily as she turned toward the refrigerator and took out the milk, butter and eggs. “As much fun as that can be, I'd much rather curl up to a warm body at night.”
“You'll learn. Men aren't worth half the trouble they cause. All a woman needs to be happy is a great career, some nice toys and a hearty stock of copper-topped batteries. Trust me.”
Masters Holdings now operated with a skeletal crew. Commercial and housing construction in Atlanta had slowly ground down to a complete stop in the last four years. While puffed up economists, Wall Street analysts and the same tried-and-true politicians argued whether the nation was in a recession or not, companies like Charlie's were hemorrhaging money at a record pace.
When the first signs of trouble emerged, Charlie foolishly believed that his company could survive an economic slow down. But this was like a financial drought that was on the verge of wiping him out.
Not that it should matter anymore.
Charlie's gaze drifted to his computer inbox and noted the number of messages from Dr. Weiner's office in the last week. He sighed and waffled again over picking up the phone. Why
he putting off making the appointment for the bone marrow test?
He leaned forward and put his elbows on the desk. Maybe he just didn't want to know the truth. He didn't know how to go about the business of dying.
How was that for denial.
“Mr. Masters,” Jackson Boyett, Charlie's executive assistant chirped over the intercom. “You have a call on line one.”
Charlie reached for the receiver, hesitated and then asked. “Who is it?”
“It's your mother.”
Charlie's heart dropped. He'd been avoiding his mother's calls like the plague. Though a part of him was feeling incredibly guilty about it, another part of him knew it was vital not to let his mother even suspect that something could be wrong. But Arlene Masters's intuition was always sharp as a tack.
Today was Tuesday, and Charlie and his mother had a standing Tuesday night date. If she didn't have something planned at the senior center, his mother would usually cook him dinner. What was he going to tell her? What should he tell her? If he told her about his aplastic anemia, he knew she would move into his apartment before the end of the workday.
The real question was, could he fly under the radar of his mother's sixth sense? He stared at the red flashing light on the console, took a deep breath and finally answered the phone.
“Well, if it isn't my favorite girl in the whole world,” he said, forcing humor into his voice.
Charlie frowned. This was going to be harder than he thought. “Nothing's wrong.”
“Come on, Charles. This is me you're talking to. I used to change your diapers. So trust me when I say I know when there's something wrong.”
Charlie rolled his eyes as he leaned his head against the palm of his hand. “Trust me, Mom. Nothing is wrong. You know, it's always busy here at the office. I'm just swamped.”
“I hope you're not trying to tell me you're not coming to dinner.”
“Of course not. You know how much I look forward to your home-cooked meals.”
His mother drew a deep breath, and he could tell she was still trying to detect whether he was being straight with her. “Well, I guess not.” In the next second, she became bubbly with excitement. “Anyway, I called because I wanted to tell you that we are going to be trying a new dessert tonight,” she said in a singsong tone.
“Don't worry. It's chocolate. I found this new bakery downtown. You're going to love it.”
At precisely seven-thirty, Charlie knocked on his mother's door. Dressed in casual jeans and a royal-blue cotton top, Charlie prepared for the performance of a lifetime. After thinking about it for the past few hours, he finally decided
to say anything until he had the results of his bone marrow testâthat was,
he ever took the test.
As he waited for his mother to answer the door, he wondered what would happen to her if the test confirmed the fatal diagnosis. Given his financial situation, he wouldn't have anything to leave her in his will. He'd never thought about it before, and it seemed unnatural to be thinking about it now. Charlie's smile evaporated a second before his mother opened the door.
“Great, you're onâwhat's wrong?” she asked.
Charlie realized he'd been caught off guard and quickly chiseled his smile back into place. “Nothing.” He leaned forward and planted a kiss against her round cheek. “I was just thinking.”
“You sure have been doing an awful lot of that lately.”
“You're complaining? I seem to recall you always telling me to think before I act, speak andâ”
“All right, all right,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Get on in here. I have chicken frying on the stove.”
Charlie stepped into his mother's quaint and spotless apartment and drew in a deep breath. The heavenly aroma of fried chicken filled his nostrils and weakened his knees. Nobody could cook like his mother.
A second later his stomach growled in agreement.
Chuckling, his mother patted his firm stomach. “Sounds like you brought a healthy appetite with you.”
“Well, what the heck happened to your foot?” She glanced down at his cane.
“Sprained it playing b-ball with the guys.”
She shook her head and frowned. “I swear, you boys.” She shook her head and disappeared into the kitchen “Have a seat. Dinner will be ready in a second.”
Charlie almost followed her, but knew if he stepped a foot into her kitchen, she would have hissy fit. His mother loved serving him as much as she loved cooking for him. Truth be told, he knew he would be lying if he said that he didn't love how she spoiled him.
Growing up in the heart of Atlanta in the 1970s and '80s wasn't exactly easy for him or his single mom, but they always seemed to manage walking the fine line between poor and broke. It helped a lot that he and Derrick were not only best friends, but so were their mothers. Together the two women kept both boys in line.
Derrick's mother eventually remarried, while Charlie's mother still seemed to mourn the loss of his father.
A sad smile ghosted around Charlie's face as he reflected on his childhoodâthe good and the bad.
Charlie's gaze floated across the dining room and landed on the multitude of pictures hanging on the wall.
There were pictures of his mother when she was young. Some of his grandparents, and even one of his great-grandmother was smiling back at him. There were plenty of pictures of him, too. Some of them he didn't remember posing for and others that he had fond memories of.
At last his eyes landed on a picture of his parents together. They were teenagers. According to his mother, Jonathan Masters was often mistaken for a white man and as a result of genetics, Charlie had his mother's complexion but his father's eyes.
Jonathan Masters died a young man. He'd gone out on a cold winter's night for baby formula and ended up being an innocent bystander shot dead during a store robbery.
“He was so young,” Arlene said, following Charlie's gaze. “There's not a day that goes by that I don't miss him.” She looked at Charlie. “I hate that you don't remember him. He would've been so proud of you.”
Charlie reached for his mother's hand and gave it a squeeze.
“Despite him dying so young, he lived a full life.” She chuckled softly. “Everyone who knew Jonathan knew him to be a good man. Honest. Kind. Loving. And definitely a playboy. You definitely inherited that trait from him.”
“What?” Charlie actually blushed. “I don't know what you're talking about.”
“Uh-huh.” His mother leveled him with a playful look. “I just know Jonathan had so many women beating down his door, his picture should have been in the
Guinness Book of World Records
“I'm telling you he had it goin' on. All those girls plotting and scheming. All
had to do was invite him over for supper every Sunday. In no time at all I had him eating out of my hand.” She glanced down and stared at the gold band still adorning her finger. She sighed. “Now I'm just waiting for you to come to your senses and settle down so I can have me some grandbabies running around here.”
Charlie automatically rolled his eyes. “Oh, are we about to have that conversation again?”
“Nope. I'm going into the kitchen and get your food, but don't think I'm going to be around here cooking for you forever. Find you a girl who knows her way around the kitchen instead of the mall, and you'll have yourself a winner.”
A few minutes later, his mother set in front of him a large plate piled high with fried chicken, candied yams, collard greens with bits of ham hock and her off-the-chain homemade cornbread.
Charlie looked over at his mother with tears in his eyes. “Have I told you lately how much I love you?”
“You better.” Arlene lovingly patted the top of his hand and placed a kiss against his brow.
Charlie grabbed his fork but was quickly smacked on the back of the head.
“Now you know we say grace around here,” she reminded him. She eased into her chair, took his hand and bowed her head. “O Lord, we bless thy holy name for this mercy, which we have now received from thy bounty and goodness. Feed now our souls with thy grace, that we may make it our meat and drink to do thy gracious will, through Jesus Christ our savior. Amen.”